LONDON: Watching our HD TV images over this winter football period, one thing will be very clear to the viewer. The muddy centre circles, goalkeeper boxes and icy stitching along the touch lines have all but disappeared from the game of football. The player, manager and fan alike are now treated to manicured playing surfaces akin to Wimbledon Lawn Tennis or Augusta National Golf Club. The game is thus much faster and encourages a style of play very different to the third round FA Cup games of yesteryear.
There is no debate that these pitches have improved the quality and beauty of the game, but what is the physical impact on the players? This has been a week where Roy Hodgson has accused these pitches as being a "snake in the grass". For many, pitches are becoming a common villain in the player injury story.
The surfaces that Hodgson, Sir Alex Ferguson and other managers have denounced are what are known as "desso pitches'. Part natural, part artificial fibre they are compiled of a hybrid grass, designed and installed by Desso Sports Systems. They have been around for nearly 30 years and are used across sports such as American Football, rugby and football. In the Premier League all teams now have hybrid grass pitches, with Newcastle United being the only non-Desso Sports Systems one.
Incorporating an undersoil heating and extensive drainage system, such pitches are sand based with around three per cent of the surface made up of artificial fibre intertwined with natural grass. During installation a giant sewing machine plants the green plastic fibres in two-centimetre squares at a depth of 18-20cm; 15-20mm stand above the surface of the soil, and then the natural grass will be cut to two or three millimetres above it.
When Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium from Highbury in 2006 they installed the Desso GrassMaster system and Paul Burgess, head groundsman, has hailed the surface. For him, "It's nice to know we can trust the surface's stability and have a field that gets less damaged than an ordinary one. Most importantly, the team is happy."
This stability comes with a downside though. They are definitely harder surfaces to play on (evidenced by Clegg Hammer readings) and some theorise that there is also risk of boots getting stuck more easily in the turf and providing more rotational force through Harder pitch surfaces that deliver back more reactive energy back to the players. Rather than the feeling of deadening legs that players have playing on softer or boggy surfaces, players are allowed to reach their peak velocities quicker. It is the same principle that applies in the 100m races at major championships where harder tracks are described as fast tracks for the sprinters. The players will feel the shock going through their bodies and they will feel it more in their joints (bones) and tendons.
There have though been no scientific studies looking at desso pitches and injury risk, or even the link between pitch hardness of natural turf in professional football and the epidemiology of contact or non-contact injuries.
AFC Bournemouth, who suffered three major ACL injuries in the first four weeks of the season, had installed a new pitch at their stadium. Glenn Murray prophesised that the pitch was to blame but in relation to these three injuries the medical team have reviewed them with biomechanical and injury prevention experts from Norway and Sweden, who concluded that it was simply bad luck and the players taking extra risks in the way they play the game (overstretching or going in for a tackle) in a match situation.
However, players do seem scared of playing on different surfaces, as witnessed by Thierry Henry's active avoidance of 4G surfaces during his time in Major League Soccer, Theo Walcott's concerns about the recent trip to Lithuania and the fact Chelsea's players are seen to migrate to playing on the desso half of the main training pitch at their Cobham training ground.
So while there is no clear evidence to support or refute players' fears or managers' assertions, pitches should be seen as one of the risk factors that should be taken into consideration during preparation. And as with all risks you can take action. Leicester City in particular have been one of the most proactive managers of player care and their safety on the pitch over the past eight years.
Under the medical and scientific leadership of Dave Rennie, and the buy-in of managers, especially Nigel Pearson, the club have looked to prepare their players proactively, at an individual level, each week for surface, weather and opposition alike. The level of detail in their preparation has been impressive. In relation to the pitch, they monitor soil and air temperatures, take regular soil samples to keep an eye on nutrient levels and also use a prism gauge to check height of cut of the pitch.
Furthermore, for away games they take a machine with them and measure the entire pitch before the game so they know exactly how hard the pitch is in the hope they can determine what their performance is like on that type of pitch and how it affects the potential for injury on an individual player.
After the game they consider the workload of the player and if necessary the training the following week is modified. Of course this requires a deep commitment to communication within the club, amongst everyone from the manager and the medical and fitness team right through to the groundsmen. Like in cricket, there is an ability to prepare a surface that aides not negatively impacts a team.
The debate will no doubt continue until the scientific community can refute the claims of players and managers. These same players and managers should ask themselves if it is a reason or simply an excuse. Injuries in football are just not that simple.